What a Character Blogathon: Christopher Lloyd

One of the great things about the What a Character Blogathon is that it is a blogathon whose theme literally can be repeated on an annual basis. This being the third edition of the series is a testament not only to the passion of the bloggers involved, but also to the plethora of talented so-called character actors that have graced the silver screen through the ages.

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When thinking of whom to write about, and noting that there was no restriction with regards to era of film, Christopher Lloyd came immediately to mind. Mr. Lloyd occurred to me not only because he is still currently active; though perhaps not usually in the caliber of production worthy of his veritable skills, but also because his career has spanned quite a few decades, and in true character actor form in some of them you may have forgotten or not realized that “Oh, yes, that’s him too.”

Though he does have a few appearances and characters that are well known to all movie fans Christopher Lloyd is on that list of actors that not only makes me smile when I see him show up in a film, he is also prodigious enough such that he can nearly elevate an entire movie all by his lonesome – as will be evidenced below.

Christopher Lloyd has be around for sometime such that you may not know (depending on your age or what you’ve seen) he was occasionally credited as Chris Lloyd early on, or that we was nominated for Primetime Emmys (Taxi) and was mostly known as a TV actor early on in his career.

He has since 1975 accumulated more than 180 credits on the big and small screen. Below I will discuss some of those roles that have had the longest lasting impact through the years. As this is about an actor who is active I have, where possible, pulled in video clips to help illustrate my points.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour (2012)

I have been a fan of R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour from the start, I wrote about as such here. Even though the current (fourth) season has jumped the shark, or nuked the fridge if you prefer, it had a very good run. The balance of juvenile horror and humor elements in the Grampires episode that Christopher Lloyd played the titular role is being a strong indicator:

Piranha 3DD (2012)

Make no mistake that I truly hate this movie, but as I mentioned in my initial review the standout is the monologuing of Christopher Lloyd. By this day and age’s standard’s Lloyd is now a throwback so it’s more than fitting that he would play the ranting scientist with a conscious in a sci-fi film, an older archetype rarely seen anymore, much like his talent for being somewhat theatrical yet relatable and human.

You can see a clip here.

Snowmen (2010)

Snowmen is the kind of film that I liked, and functioned on a very basic level almost in spite of itself. Put it this way: it’s a film where one character’s entire involvement was confusing and detracted from proceedings. That being the case there is a lot of slack for everyone to pick up. When a story is ostensibly just about breaking a Guinness record actors with chops are needed to add any kind of gravitas to it. This film gets them in a few cases Lloyd especially is among that company.

Clubhouse (TV Series, 2004-5)

It’s a TV show but I did want to include this because it was one scene I found as opposed to a whole trailer or a whole work. One thing you find on a résumé as long and varied as his are involvements you forgot about. This was one of many short-lived series I’ve watched through the years. I’m not sure it stands out as being more deserving of extra time than other shows but it was taking a risk. Lloyd’s character of a curmudgeonly equipment manager is a great fit. This scene with Billy Dee Williams is evidence of that.

Camp Nowhere (1994)

This is the kind of role that was made for Christopher Lloyd. Sure the plot where kids create a fake summer camp to have a free summer and get parents off their back is outlandish, but he elevates it so well. Lloyd’s character being a frustrated thespian plays into the plot and gives him license to do great things and make this film work much, much better than it should:

The Addams Family (1991) and Addams Family Values (1993)

This is a role I recently had to remind myself of. Another thing that is easy to forget is that this film was taking a risk plot-wise. There was no such risk taken in casting the film as they assembled quite a slew of talented players here. Lloyd’s expressive face brings the perfect amount of life to Fester Addams and makes him odd and endearing in equal measure. He follows admirably in Coogan’s footsteps.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Out of all of these roles I’ve mentioned here this is the one I was chomping at the bit to write about. This is the movie from my childhood that made Lloyd stand out and made him a legend in my mind. Yes, I saw Back to the Future as a child and enjoyed it, and him in it; but here’s where time and time and time again I was enamored by his verve by the charisma he brought to a villainous character. Where I became mesmerized by what he and Hoskins were able to incarnate in an animated world.

My personal barometer for labeling a film a classic is at least 25 years in nearly all cases, which means this film was jettisoned there last year. If it is a film that will find new generations remains to be seen, but it certainly has a stronghold for those who grew up with it and Lloyd is a huge reason.

Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future III

This is the one we all know. I traveled in reverse chronological order in part because this role is the given, it’s his most well-known character. I don’t mean to diminish it, but I wanted to include it in a sea of his performances to illustrate the rather Gloria Swanson-like point that it’s not him that’s gotten small, it’s the pictures:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

With the memorable performances both large and small in this film it can be easy to forget that this was Christopher Lloyd’s debut performance. After all this is the film of Louise Fletcher’s legendary turn, of one of Jack Nicholson’s Oscar wins, of Will Sampson’s stunning nearly-silent turn and stereotype busting, Sydney Lassick’s brilliant neuroses, and also of a very young Danny DeVito. Yet, Lloyd as Taber adds a counterpoint to McMurphy’s new, vital frustrations with seasoned ingrained frustrations beyond just his mental disturbances.

Other Works

His appearances in film genres run the gamut from dramas like Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981); works of horror like the Masters of Horror episode written by Clive Barker (Valerie on the Stairs) or the TV anthology film Quicksilver highway. Myriad children’s film the Disney Angels series (…in the Outfield, …in the Endzone), Kids World, voice work in DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, Dennis the Menace a slightly tonally askew criminal.

Conclusion

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988, Touchstone Pictures)

In watching Whoopi Goldberg on Inside the Actors Studio once I recall how she related a story about how the ‘bigger picture’ of a film’s success or failure by looking at either box office or aggregated reviews can obscure the fact that films can affect individual lives. That was the thought process I had as I assembled clips mostly from lesser-known and under-seen performances. An actor or filmmaker can make a name for oneself in a film that’s a breakway hit, but it’s the titles that not everyone really knows, that are more unique and personal to your tastes that really bind you to an actor.

These days he may not even be supporting in the caliber of works he used to, but Christopher Lloyd is persistently a bonus and a boon to a film. Often I can say “at least Christopher Lloyd is in this” so it won’t be that bad, but oftentimes it makes something good even better. He’s one who brings his all to everything he does and rewards your engaging in a film a consummate entertainer who is quite a character indeed.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Genremeld (Part 10 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eight in the series to read other parts go here.

Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Creepshow, Weird Science, Time Bandits, Splash, Big, Back to the Future, The Witches of Eastwick and My Stepmother is an Alien all of these films crossed genres to try and make something new and unique, and this was a staple of 80s filmmaking.


It has been said that nothing really original has been said after 1800. In film much the same conundrum exists in that there really are no new stories, but that doesn’t mean we still don’t crave films. More so than any other decade prior the 80s were expert at recombining genres and on occasion creating something new or at least different enough that everyone flocked towards it.

One of the great hits of the genremeld was Gremlins. Never before or since has there been such a perfect balance of the horrific and comedic. There’s no tongue-in-cheek here it wants you to laugh and gasp in the same breath.


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

In the film Gremlins we have two important things occurring: first, this is one of the first films of the Spielberg School. It was written by Chris Columbus while he was attending NYU he later went on to work with Spielberg on The Goonies. It was directed by Joe Dante a former Corman protégé who later in the decade directed Innerspace and Matinee. Plot-wise this film is very important in that it’s a great example of the ’80s habit of fusing genres. Many ’80s many horror films were unintentionally funny this one is attempting to be purposely funny and succeeding. It was also quite frightening mostly to young kids because the cute, little furry things mutate into nasty, putrid beasts.


Structurally, this film is very tight. In the opening scene where the father (Hoyt Axton) buys a mogwai we are given rules, a trait common to many fantasy films, they are ‘don’t get them wet, don’t feed them after midnight and they hate bright light.’ The breaking of these rules end up being our act breaks and/or plot points. The first act ends in one of the most clear-cut fashions I’ve ever seen. Gizmo, the mogwai, gets water spilled on him in the 25th minute of the film and we see his progeny pop right out of him.


What a lot of people fail to notice is that there was actually a new creature invented for this film under the guise of an old myth. Gremlins were supposedly little monsters placed in machinery during World War II by the Germans. This creature comes from China according to this tale. It also allows for slight social commentary when Mr. Futterman complains about foreign cars and also while drunk he professes to believe in Gremlins in the classic sense. In the 1980s foreign cars truly bothered people enough such that the phrase ‘Buy American,’ was coined. 


Gremlins (1984, Warner Bros.)

The Spielberg School was always very big on ‘in-jokes,’ which can be readily apparent to the audience but are often missed (i.e. Rockin’ Ricky Rialto has the same billboard lettering as, and similar artwork to, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Gizmo hiding behind an E.T. doll). There is also a cameo by animation director Chuck Jones. 


The characters in this film are quickly established. We see Rand Peltzer, the father, haplessly trying to pedal his invention, Billy (Zach Galligan) signing a petition, Kate (Phoebe Cates) works at a bar for free and Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday) refuses to give a family more time to pay their loan. This film is funny and fun-filled and allusions to classic cinema are also play an important part in this story there is a clip from It’s a Wonderful Life and the Gremlins watch Snow White and in a hysterical turn they love it. There’s also mimicry of a popular film at the time Flashdance, and it’s great. The whole second half of this film is a wonderful mix of the hysterical and the creepy and sometimes both. Mrs. Deagle is thrown from her Stairmaster out the window to die in the snow. This shouldn’t be funny but it is. Then on the gross-out side we see a Gremlin melting in the sunlight. We also have the music of Jerry Goldsmith in this film who is wonderful composer who will turn out tunes just as hummable as Williams’s, but he specializes more in these fun types of films.

Gremlins was a big hit grossing $148 million on an $11 million dollar budget, and it’s easy to see why. It turns from a horror/comedy and there’s a lot of action thrown in. We laugh at what we shouldn’t. This is also one of the more tastefully done ‘horrors-on-Christmas’ films with a Gremlin getting chopped to bits while Burl Ives’s ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ is playing. I used to be deathly afraid of this film and it took me many years to gather up the courage to see it again. I’m very glad I did see it again though because, as strange as it sounds, this film is even whimsical in the way it handles its subject matter. As an adult, I don’t know who would be truly afraid of it but it does offer its fair share of the horror currency known as the “gross-out.” It’s so well handled in that regard I think we may be in suspense for a bit waiting for something else like it.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Animation (Part 7 of 17)

This is a recapitualtion of a paper I wrote in school. Part one can be read here. A search can retrieve subsequent parts. Since time does bring about changes and developments, I have included some notes in brackets after statements that may no longer hold true, or at least are in need of further enlightening.

In the 1980s Animation and Television are one. Even more so than in the 1970s animation was in the 80s a medium of television, while the animated feature was always a rarity we see in the 80s the complete discontinuation of cinematic shorts and the dominance of half hour animated programs before getting to that there are some important developments in the cinema that need examining.

Walt Disney Studios were my catechism in film. From 1937 to 1995 they were the Notre Dame of film in my eyes and could do no wrong. There is an asterisk, however, and that comes in the 1980s. The films they made were very eclectic in the 80s.

They made some very good films The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and The Little Mermaid (1989) yet they produced films that I had no interest in seeing as a child and they were Oliver and Company (1988) and The Black Cauldron (1985). Disney went beyond the point of experimentation later on and just got bad on occasion. They’d lost the luster and were not something I looked forward to any longer. [I’ve since filled the 80s gaps in my viewing, and have found newer and older Disney titles I like. My fandom is complicated thing, as I will explore in March.]

If it takes about four years to produce an animated feature film then I estimate the death of Disney films as we knew them in 1991. Which is when they would’ve started working on Pocahontas and Mulan the first two Disney films I consciously avoided and then they released the terrible Hercules and it was over. The only quality they can come up with now is through collaboration with Pixar and through use of computer animation. [This too has changed since this writing and the introduction of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which focuses more on traditional techniques.]

Not that there was anything wrong with the Disney of the 1980s, oddly their best film of the period may have been The Brave Little Toaster in 1987 but one of the best things the 80s brought us was a legitimate alternative American feature length animation film for the first time since Max Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels.

One of the very best films ever made has got to be Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It took the technology from Bedknobs and Broomsticks to the nth degree. Not only that but it’s one of the most entertaining and delightful films I’ve eve been witness to and it’s nearly miraculous that Spielberg was able to pull it all together. What makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit truly a great film of the 80s cinema is how we see the cartoon characters. This probably has more resonance with people who saw this film as children because, in essence, what the film is doing is rounding out these characters, if not that adding dimension at least. Whereas in shorts we knew what Bugs Bunny was going to say and how Daffy would respond. Here we saw them in different situations and in a new light. It’s something kids do all the time: take characters that have existing attributes, stories, etc. and put them in new ones either just in their own imagination or with the aid of action figures. This makes it such a rich and pleasing cinematic experience. While as children get to bask in whimsical awe that all these characters we never saw interact are running around together (Donald and Daffy) we also get wrapped up in the mystery and it becomes very suspenseful. For adults the opposite effect must be true the suspense and plot keep you in it and the cartoon characters take you back in time, making this a unique experience for all who see it. It is truly a gem of the 80s which was hailed as a ‘landmark’ at the time but hasn’t had much said about it since. Spielberg attempted to make Roger a new star of shorts but the logistics probably got in the way and only a few were made, however, Spielberg has continued to work with animation making the all computer animation Shrek, yet another breakthrough and creating such television series as Tiny Toons Adventures, Anamaniacs, Freakazoid! and Histeria.

An American Tail (1986, Universal)

Aside from Spielberg’s efforts the 80s has produced another animation specialist named Don Bluth:

“Don Bluth was one of the chief animators at Disney to come to the mantle after the great one’s death. He eventually became the animation director for such films as The Rescuers (1977) and Pete’s Dragon (1977). Unfortunately, the quality of animation that Disney was producing at this point was not up to par with the great works of Disney, and there was rumor that the production unit at Disney might be shut down indefinitely. In retaliation, Bluth and several other animators led a walkout, and went off to form their own independent animation firm.”

Bluth’s story is one of those twenty-years-in-the-business-overnight-success-stories. In 1982 he released his first film The Secret of NIHM and it was a success. In fact, he didn’t have a bust in the 80s following that up with An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven. While he’s never been on a Disney-like scale he has made quality films and continues to make his own works. As a businessman and a producer, he’s never said no to a sequel. God knows how many Land Before Time films there are now but he does have his standards as a director and his most recent animated sci-fi adventure Titan A.E. received sharply mixed reviews.

Animation is definitely now the domain of television. [Obviously this no longer holds as animated features now come from all studios and have spawned an Academy Award category all their own.] The short which used to be on before a feature film, is now paired with two other shorts and called a television show. The stage for this change was set in the 1980s as we will see in the television section.

Works Cited: http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Bluth,%20Don

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/TitanAE-1097051/

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Box Office Boom (Part 5 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school, and had previously posted on another site. It’s being re-posted here in periodic installments. You can read parts one, two, three and four here.

A very likely reason for the love-affair of the studio with the sequel is that the Blockbuster Mentality was in full force. A hit was a smash and a bomb blew up in your face. Ticket prices were up and so were budgets, but even with all that taken into account there was an increase in the size of the Blockbuster Film.


1989 was a watershed year when the Blockbuster Mentality finally came to some kind of fruition. In that same year the top 10 all earned $100 million with Parenthood bringing home that exact amount. In 1989 viewership rose 16.4% percent from the year before with Batman, The Little Mermaid and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids being amongst notable original hits (i.e. non-sequels) and sequels also proved successful with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 and Back to the Future part II. Having seen most of these films I do believe them for the most part to be very well done, unlike much of the trash that lines the top of the box office today. And through the 80s as a whole despite an increase in prices by 48% attendance also rose 24%.

With the youth of America being the power at the box office in the 80s, and the appeal of the cinema being eternal, attendance never really took a hit but every attempt was made by the studios to conquer this audience. There was also an attempt made to conquer the adults who were too busy watching The Cosby Show. Something went terribly right in 1989 because we never had seen so many sequels work in such a big way. The size and scale of major motion pictures also have never looked back. While the 80s were big on gigantic budgets they would really kick into high gear in the latter part of the decade. Just one example being Who Framed Roger Rabbit costing $70 million to produce and grossing $392 million worldwide. With these kind of success stories the studios were ever more tempted to throw money at their one guarantee and sit to wait for their investment to multiply.


This strategy has ultimately lead to the further deterioration of whatever is left of the studios but it has helped to create the true blockbuster because when a film’s a hit now it’s truly a hit; meaning it has to make loads and loads of money to go anywhere.
 It does seem, however, that trying to make a huge score on a more modest budget is less a part of the game now.

Work Cited: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/